Photo by Dan Moore

January 28, 2009

A belated dispatch from Obamaland

A sordid tale of love, adulation and America’s newest action hero

Before We Begin: A Preamble to What Happened

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the vast majority of the 4.8 bazillion people that flooded our nation’s capital yesterday, this was as close as we were ever going to get to President Elect Barack Hussein Obama: A trailer-sized Jumbotron (one of many, with accompanying gigantic floating speaker boxes) adorning the National Mall, spreading our newly christened President’s sound and vision to a live-in-the-flesh electorate whom traveled through snow, freezing temperatures, interstate cuisine, Motel 6s, home foreclosures, $2/gal. gas, war in distant lands and/or, in my case, trudged through freshly expelled human fecal matter in the bowels of Washington, D.C.; all of it endured — voluntarily, even happily — just to get a glimpse of a man.

Actually, The Man.

Unlike John Cusack, most people in America didn’t get tickets in order to be seated close enough to view Obama’s facial stubble. Nor do they have semi-automatic camera cranes to deploy at Wolf Blitzer’s behest. You see, for us tired, poor, freezing, and absofuckinglutely huddled masses who felt that watching it on TV just wasn’t going to cut the democratic mustard and insisted on actually being there in person, it was a truly proletarian affair.

It was this simple desire that compelled 43 ticketless students, faculty, and staff members from Bellarmine University to attend the Inauguration anyway. Since I’ve been on the road with them for the past two days, I’ve come to know a few of them moderately well. Consequently, I’ve been able to observe firsthand the effects of Big History upon one of President Obama’s key electoral demographics (youngins), which technically means that everyone grew up a little yesterday, not to mention the fact that the historicity has touched us all in a million different ways that we’ve only begun to hear about from the great Punditocracy.

On the other hand, it was this same simple desire that clogged D.C.’s arteries worse than a liquefied Double Whopper IV-drip, caused a near-riot, and generally allowed people to exhibit a lot of Nobama qualities.

For now, the Bellarmine students are sleeping, and I should join them: My nerves are pretty much in tatters, my right eye is bloodshot, my lower lumbar feels like a tightly wound barge cable, and I’m not Robert Byrd.

O-Day (+0)

The Logistics of Hope

Metro Station, Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day — Less than 10 minutes off the train and I’m already lost; engulfed by a geometrically multiplying crowd that has swallowed any signs of my specially designated travel group; scanning the tops of hundreds of heads in the hopes of locating one head in particular: The distinctive black-and-red-flame Louisville Cardinals toboggan of Ivar Nial, a Norwegian Bellarmine student and the tallest member of my long-absent group.

After several moments of infantile thumbsucking, I’m quickly rescued by another Bellarmine group that emerges from the human maelstrom. Within 10 minutes we’ve boarded another train en route to L’Enfant Plaza, the crux of D.C.’s metro rail network, just a few blocks from the National Mall. We get to moving, slowly at first, and then it’s announced via the car’s P.A. system that our destination has been momentarily closed due to massive overcrowding.

We emerge at the detour, Capitol South, and are somewhat confusingly herded into a massive queue that spans the length of the cavernous, subterranean metro station. The look on everyone’s faces reveals a common characteristic: the flared nostril, aka “the Hostile Nostril,” common in primates whose nerves are badly frayed yet who remain ready to pounce at a moment’s notice; line-cutters are intermittently pushed or harassed into submission. So we follow the line, right on down to the halfway point, whereupon we loop around a massive support column at whose base I discover this, a pile of human feces.

I think I can speak for every living American (scatological fetishists aside) when I say “I didn’t vote for this.”

•••

Shortly after Barack Obama was elected 44th President of the United States, Dr. Hannah Clayborne, director of Bellarmine University’s Multicultural Program, spoke with her colleague, director of Minority Programs and international student counselor Cornell Craig, about doing something to mark the event, something that would involve the students; something historic. During the 77-day period which comprised Obama’s transition and former President Bush’s* remaining 2.5 months in the Oval Office, Clayborne & Craig decided to offer students a chance to attend the inauguration by way of an essay contest.

“It was kind of a random conversation,” Craig recalled.

That random conversation garnered a strong reaction from the student body. Essays flooded Bellarmine’s Office of Minority Affairs (OMA), recounting stories of disparate and difficult upbringings, personal narratives of hope and other American-audaciousness, whose common threads (based upon the excerpts that I’ve managed to read thus far; more TBA) were two-fold:

1. The psychology of Obamadom: No matter one’s walk of life, no matter how unique one’s solipsism, Obama’s life story stirs something within the collective unconscious whereby the Obama-observer finds common ground with The Man’s childhood poverty/fragmented ethnic identity/Alger-esque rise/commitment to family/whathaveyou.

2. A shared desire to “be a part of history,” an oft-repeated phrase which both acknowledges and celebrates the symbolic and geographical (and, somewhat plausibly, sacrosanct) nature of simply being there.

Because if there’s a common thread to our history as a sentient species, it is one of gathering together at one spot or another to engage in communal witness: Native American pow-wows. Blood orgies at Stonehenge. Magic shows at Sunday Mass … Basketball games … Britney Spears concerts … And now, the peaceful transfer of power in the most powerful country the world has ever seen to a member of a race that said-country used to deny fundamental human rights, liberties, and related pursuits of happiness.

More has been waxed upon — philosophically, morally, and intellectually — about this very subject by the vast mainstream Punditburo since Nov. 4 that any further attempt would be an exercise in rhetorical exhaustion.

Yet, as Craig points out, there’s an important caveat that should not be overlooked:

“[Electing Obama] is a start. It’s easy to look at it as a dream realized. It’s not; it’s a milemarker. There’s still racism and ignorance in the world. But it’s a positive sign.”

Interestingly, according to Craig, Bellarmine’s OMA also focuses on outreach to the university’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender communities, in addition to international and minority students. When considering the invocation of Saddleback Pastor Rick Warren — whose staunchly conservative stance on gay rights and their negative reception by Obama’s left-of-center base have been dutifully reported — Craig responded that it’s a tough position to be in.

“I mean, on the one hand you’ve got a lot of progressive thought out there,” he said. “But on the other hand you’ve got religious tradition, and there are always stalwart positions that people are hard for people to break away from.

“There’s still growth that’s necessary.”

Student Allison Schumacher, a psychology and international studies major whom (along with everybody else on the trip) voted for Obama, was “pleasantly surprised” by Warren’s inaugural supplication.

“I didn’t think it was impressive, and it was kind of a ‘cookie-cutter’ speech, but at least it wasn’t a total clusterfuck, you know?” she said.

Schumacher figures the country isn’t ready for a non-Christian president, and is glad that, in the media narrative-driven Thunderdome of American presidential politicking, Obama could meet the electoral criteria of being a man of faith.

P. Kimé Lê, fellow student and self-avowed agnostic, agreed with the assessment.

“I’m not necessarily an Obama fanatic, but …” said Lê, before reaffirming the mantra, “… I wanted to be a part of history. Obama being elected president kicks down a door that might’ve otherwise never opened.”

O-Day (+.5 ∞)

Being There

“Hey, who’s that? Is that … is that John Kennedy? Oh my god, look: It’s John F. Kennedy! ... No, wait, that’s not him, that’s the other one. The sick one.”

Overheard on National Mall, 1/20/09

It should be noted that “being a part of history” and actually witnessing a historical occurrence are, at least superficially, two diametrically opposed things: Whereas the former implies some sort of sepia-tinged, hindsight-reliant ideal, the latter consists of all the mundane nuts and bolts of everyday existence one rarely associates with events of great magnitude; no sepia, no ideal, just trying to hold your bladder amidst a nagging sensation that your wallet keeps disappearing every 15 minutes.

Yet for Ivar, whose red-flamed head I’ve just managed to spot at great relief upon the upper level of the Capitol South metro station, the ideal and the experience are one and the same.

“It’s amazing to realize that, hey, this is history,” he tells me later, “and that this is how history is made.”

Having reunited with my original group, we emerge via escalator into the bitterly cold, retina-stinging sunlight of the street surface, which is swarming with droves of eager citizens and merchandisers alike, who flank us intermittently on all sides**.

“Yo!” screams one standing atop a parked car (his?), “get them Obama T-shirts, man! Gotta get them shirts, y’all! Get them shirts!” By the looks of it, he’s making a killing.

Funneling down Independence Avenue we pass under the granite archways of the Department of Agriculture Building, and the dome of the Capitol passes out of sight. All I can see are people; to my front, back, and side to side, a teeming mass of humanity larger than any I could concieve***, and soon we’re shoulder to shoulder, marching like patriotic lemings through one FBI patrolled bottleneck after another until — after 45 minutes of determined shuffling, we arrive at Federal Triangle, the Washington Monument towering above to our left.

My group and I are so far removed from the steps of the Capitol, and our elevation relative to that point so poor, that we must rely upon one of several shotgun-house-sized Jumbotrons which suffered from some of the worst five-second delay I’ve ever seen. For the next two hours we stand, hands-in-pockets, occasionally removing them to snap a photo of this or that historical-once-in-a-lifetime-thing, and wait. For two hours. In the cold.

During this time, several things happen:

(1) Yo-Yo Ma’s name is ridiculed. Repeatedly.

(2) Complimentary American flags are distributed throughout the audience in preparation for the inaugural money-shot.

(3) The Jumbotron briefly depicts a shot of Bill Clinton standing next to Obama’s daughters, which prompts a man standing to my left to remark, “Gotta keep Bill away from those girls, Barack,” which makes me laugh very, very hard, which in turn causes the man who made the remark, Frank — who is black — to laugh even harder, thus engendering between us a moment of post-racial harmony so often espoused by pundits, yet so rarely lived.

(4) Chief Justice John Roberts’ faulty memory gives thousands of bloggers something to write about.

And then, at noon, an era spanning eight long years — during which time the political consciousness of most of my fellow Bellarmine travelers was formed — comes to an end. While television cameras and news anchors around the world depict the moment as part of a larger story of change and hope and racial absolution, the moments following Obama’s inaugural speech are marked by an urge to flee the scene; I overhear one man chastising the million or so people whom were already bailing on inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander, “You people came all this way and now you’re just going to leave as soon as the speech is over? That’s sad.”

Sad, but true. And for a few unlucky individuals, also dangerous: Making our way back down Independence, our group doesn’t make it more than a block before we’re swallowed whole by the post-speech dash for the metros. Approaching 13th Street we’re effectively ribcage-to-ribcage, shoving, pushing, impatient, the surging crowd swollen to full flown mob-status. By chance we reunite with another Bellarmine group, headed by Craig, whose signature plaid Gatsby hat makes him easy to spot, but the reunion is cut short when we’re ordered by tired-looking police to make way for an ambulance. It appears that someone has collapsed from diabetic shock — a young man, his face red and slick with tears — and as the flashing vehicle crawls closer we’re separated from Craig & Co. as they drift back into the surging masses, the plaid Gatsby nowhere to be found.

Behind the ambulance a vacuum of empty space has formed, but it’s quickly and violently filled by another contingent of the mob, like a great multicolored wave let loose from on high. The sheer violence of this wave as it crashes into us is startling. Soon, Ivar’s Cardinals toboggan vanishes.

“I didn’t vote for this!” someone screams. “I did not vote for this!”

Luckily, however, we are an obese nation, so most of these human-on-human collisions were well insulated. But still.

•••

We escape D.C. via train, our destination Frederick, Md., where our charter bus waits idling by the curb. Ours is the first group to make a successful return, having decided earlier that any attempt to observe the parade was futile, if not life-threatening. Slowly, the rest wander back, in threes and in fives, and once they’ve settled themselves into their seats the talk centers on events now just hours old.

“It was surreal,” says T.J. Burgin, an English major. “Not necessarily seeing anything, because we couldn’t, but hearing [Obama's] voice and knowing that he was right over there …” He smiles, shaking his head in a kind of disbelief.

“In one word: Energy,” Ivar (sans toboggan) says. “All these people gathered together for this purpose, and that there were really no problems at all.”

Ivar, who hails from Norway, is quick to point out that, out of all his fellow Dutchmen across the world, “I was able to see this with my own eyes.” He smiles.

Tired smiles, specifically, and lots of them on this rumbling coach. Chief among them Dr. Clayborne, who, as our primary shepherd during this journey, exhibits a countenance of nuanced, weary calm. I take a moment to ask her about what she thought of everything.

“I can’t honestly describe how I feel right now,” she says. With a handful of students yet to board the bus, Clayborne cites her focus on the logistics of making sure no student is left behind as the chief concern at the moment. “But I’m more than pleased.”

“When I looked to my left, and I looked to my right, and I saw all of these different people …” She stops for a good while, and after she’s wiped her eyes she continues with verve: “I just think that [Obama] has an ability to connect so many people that I haven’t seen in a political leader. He’s a lot of things; I look at him and I see a child, an adolescent, a man, and a leader. And to be able to share this day with the students is truly a blessing.”

Shared experience is, after all, what constitutes the particulars of any given history. The culture of a people, for good or ill, dictates what stays in the story and what does not. It remains to be seen if, when enough time has passed and the actual business of recording that day for the sake of our irradiated, mutant posterity is done, whether the history that is written of Barack Obama’s inauguration will still reflect the hopeful spirit of those tired, smiling faces.

____________________________________________________________

* For the record, this marks the first time I’ve written the words “Former” “President” and “Bush” in print. And it makes me want to buy a notebook and write them all over the covers, obsessively, in different fonts and colors, like a 5th grade girl.

** Wares available included: Obama shirts galore; hats; buttons; magnets; bumper stickers; plastic wristbands; DVDs; and peanuts (Yes, Obama roasted peanuts, whose exact nature remains a mystery to me.)

*** Although it’s hard to tell when you’re an ant on the ground able to see only the other ants around you.